Can Working-Class Women Have It All?

This past summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter generated a tsunami of commentary with her Atlantic cover story about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  According to the magazine’s editors, the article broke records for online readers, Facebook likes, and comments, and it inspired response articles in a number of other publications.  Building on that success, the magazine is running another potentially controversial piece on women’s lives this month, Hanna Rosin’s argument that the “hook-up culture” on college campuses is empowering women.

Both writers acknowledge, in different ways, that when they say “women,” they really mean white middle-class straight women.  Slaughter states directly that she was “writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.”  I appreciate Slaughter making this point; too often, when people write about “women,” they don’t acknowledge class differences.

Yet I also can’t help imagining the potentially productive conversation between a woman from Slaughter’s “demographic” and a working-class woman about strategies for achieving work-life balance.  After all, working-class women have always worked, often in jobs that don’t have clear time and space boundaries (home-based piecework, taking in boarders, child care), and the tension between doing your job and caring for your family is one they’ve navigated for generations.

Rosin ackowledges working-class women more directly in her piece, citing a study by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton that examined the views of hooking up by college women from different class backgrounds.  They showed that going to college reflects “a classed self-development imperative that discourages relationships but makes hooking up appealing.”  In other words, Rosin suggests, women choose casual sex over committed relationships in order to preserve their ability to, as one young woman put it, “maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with.” Rosin mentions that the working-class women in the study found the hook-up culture “alienating,” but in order to “succeed” in the eyes of their peers, they had to adapt to it.  Those who didn’t were seen as “the dorm tragedies.”  

She also notes, again briefly (perhaps because it doesn’t fit the narrative of her article), that the working-class women “felt trapped between the choice of marrying the disastrous hometown guy who never gets off the couch, and will steal their credit card – or joining a sexual culture that made them uncomfortable.” In her view, it seems, marrying a working-class man is an inherently bad, even foolish choice.  The only other option she can imagine – or the only one that fits her claim that hooking up reflects women’s increasing power — is embracing the hook-up culture.  Obviously, there’s plenty of open space and many options between those two extremes, including the possibility that an educated woman from a working-class background could construct a fulfilling relationship with an uneducated man with whom she shares a home culture.

Having glibly exaggerated the tensions working-class women might feel with the “classed self-development imperative” of higher education, Rosin blithely treats the Yale business-school students she interviewed as representative of most college women.  In truth, they may be more deeply invested than most college students in the individualistic culture of personal advancement that scholars such as Barbara Jensen have associated with the middle class. So while I give Rosin credit for acknowledging the possibility of class differences among college women, her efforts reflect exactly the kinds of stereotyping and blind spots that Jack Metzgar wrote about here a few weeks ago.

 Slaughter overtly excludes working-class women, while Rosin addresses their perspectives in highly problematic ways.  Nevertheless, these two pieces suggest an interesting question: what would it mean for a working-class woman to “have it all”?

Given the differences in values between the working class and the middle class (see Jensen’s new book Reading Classes for a good overview, or click here for an earlier version of her analysis), we can probably begin by speculating that “having it all” for a working-class woman would not be about professional success.   More likely, it would be about finding the balance between hours at work and hours at home, keeping a job and a steady income while being there for her kids — pretty much the same challenge that professional women face. 

So what’s the difference?  Choice, for a start. Privileged women are more likely to have the option to stay at home.  Many also have the financial stability and social capital to work fewer hours, to travel less for their jobs, or to choose a job that is more flexible.  Some earn enough to be able to hire help. One reason we don’t hear much about working-class women debating whether they can have it all is that they have few options.  Most have to work at least one job, and they do forms of work that allow them little if any control over their shifts or working conditions.  Many probably have some choice of which job to do, but many do not.  They do the work that is available, under the conditions that exist, and they do the best they can with their families.  So there’s nothing to debate.  

That’s the standard thinking, right?  But it might not reflect the whole story.  In her 2011 book, For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work, Sarah Damaske argues that while working-class women cite financial need as their reason for working, they are also motivated by the satisfaction they find at work. Working-class women, Damaske suggests, feel pressure to claim that they work in order to fulfill the needs of their families.  Work may be a source of pride and identity for working-class people, but for women, especially, family roles are even more powerful.  Yet in Damaske’s interviews, working-class women also described their jobs as providing intrinsic motivation.  One woman says that it’s her job that “makes me want to get up and go somewhere.” She and others found work meaningful and enjoyable, just like their middle-class sisters.

For professional-class women, the opposite social pressure may well be in play.  They feel pressured to achieve as much as possible in their careers.  For them, choosing the less-demanding job, or worse, choosing to stay at home, feels like a decision that must be defended, while working-class women feel they must justify working.

Working-class and middle-class women are also likely to have different expectations about family life.  In her research for Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau found clear differences in how middle-class and working-class families approached raising children. The middle-class version emphasized intentional, organized child development aimed at individual achievement, while the working-class model is less ambitious, built around a vision of more spontaneous, organic development.  The middle-class version is also more labor-intensive for parents, requiring constant juggling of children’s schedules of lessons, soccer games, and other activities.  No wonder professional women struggle to balance work and family.  Even with less flexibility and power in their jobs, working-class women may be able to fit work life and home life together more smoothly, because family life involves fewer activities and less pressure for performance.

As this comparison suggests, talking about “having it all” is never simple.  But this much is: gender is classed.  That’s old news in Working-Class Studies, but it’s a lesson all those pundits talking about women have yet to understand.

Sherry Linkon

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4 Responses to Can Working-Class Women Have It All?

  1. Olga Magoula says:

    This is one of the most patronizing articles I have ever read. Have the writer ever met with actual working class women? Probably not outside some skewed demographics. Or has she/he only bought them peanuts in his/her visits to a human zoo where he/she had a few limited encounters with this species? The article above adopts a cavalier approach on imaginary “choices” this separate untouchable species might or might not have: and this is prevalent in every paragraph. Yeah, working class women’s education can easily be wasted on boring stupid soul-consuming and underpaid jobs (not proper careers of course reserved for upper-middle class women actually) and they are supposed to enjoy it! And to crown it all, if they cannot be paired with decent men, “they might opt for the hometown redneck” what a revelation! The moment any working class woman entered college or universiy or grad school, she has left back, but a very long way back, her hometown culture. For ever. If they are left with no choice in the cruel and antagonistic arena of dating and have to settle down for the redneck, they most often than not settle for a nasty divorce to stop the misery of classing cultural backgrounds at least. Nobody would really pick up the redneck but for the hometown dumbos or the very young and inexperienced, I am afraid your point is condesenting and has no reasoning here. I consider the last piece about the less stressful social adjustment of the women you describe as laughable: they supposedly do not run to cover the extracurriculum and sports activities of the children like their middle class counterpart so often do. There is social mobility and aspirations in all societies and it has been so from the dawn of time. Working class mothers can become “Tiger Mum” champions and excel in pressuring their children and cause them depression in order to make them more competitive. Girls from working class backgrounds can be pushed to excel in everything by very demanding mums anxious their young will escape the shitty life of the previous generations. Being smart and born in working class families means that you are expected to do great and prove to be the family’s savour. Take a look at Asian families and Mexican also. It is so smug to assume that working mothers do not worry, pressure, break their necks to offer the best chance they can get, and stretch their resources above their limits to assist their children. Have you ever heard and seen the meaning of the word “sacrifice” for one’s own children? I don’t expect you to ,in your Victorian, static view of a static society, where everyone gets what they deserve.


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  3. Sara Appel says:

    Agh! As a textbook “dorm tragedy” and currently single professional woman from a poverty background, this post hits home for me in some intensely personal ways. Honestly, I feel torn all the time. For me, the Great Academic Job is not worth the potential sacrifice of someday having my own family– something I value deeply. The problem, however, is that I’m caught between a number of rocks and hard places. Many youngish academic women I know long ago paired up with another person fitting a similar professional profile– generally another academic, often even someone within the same field. Perhaps I would feel differently had I not gotten my PhD from Duke– the epicenter of upper-middle class “theory boys” who all fancy themselves the next Deleuze or Guattari– but, never having been particularly attracted to this option, I find myself inclined to look over the walls of the Ivory Tower for more intriguing men to date. The problem, however, is that (at least as I see it) the PhD may very well be the working-class dorm tragedy’s scarlet letter. In other words, when the less educated men I’m interested in find out how educated I am– evident more from my articulate, opinionated conversational style than any official “announcement” of my degree status– it tends to scare them away. Not knowing much else about me, the conflation of my gendered confidence with a class status they take the PhD to represent seems like too much for them. They don’t realize that I DON’T CARE if they have a degree or not, or where they work– that, because I value working-class knowledge and perspectives at least as much as (probably more than) those coming from the middle-class world to which I’ve been exposed, I’ve already given them the benefit of the doubt that they are every bit as smart as me. I also don’t care if they ever make any money; but again, the mere existence of the PhD in my corner, the ambition and “achievement” oriented thing it seems to represent, makes them feel like I’m going to expect something they can’t deliver. And I don’t. All I’m after is someone I can really talk to– for me, that’s what “having it all” means– and the rest, we can work it out. Being (also and always) working-class, I know how to do that, too.


  4. Will Shetterly says:

    Excellent post. One quibble: I feel a bit guilty when I do the kind of petty linguistic analysis that’s become much too common on the net, but I would be happier if Slaughter was less interested in leading and more interested in leveling.

    Happy Labor Day!


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